Short sprint – On streaks

On the last day of the month, I spotted someone on Strava mentioning they’d slogged out a six mile run to keep their streak of 100-mile months going. I’ve got my own experience of streaks, after all I’ve been running every day for over eighteen months now. But I never set out to create a run streak, it just evolved due to Coronavirus and lockdowns.

I learned from parkrunning that a streak can become an albatross around the neck. For the first eighteen months or so of my parkrun life, I attended one wherever I was. It got to the point where the expectations of others to see me, my own desire to be there, plus getting up early on a Saturday morning began to weigh me down. Even the streak itself began to become a relentless pressure. When I picked up an injury in the depths of winter I finally had a reason to break the streak. As soon as I broke the streak all the pressure released and I was no worse off.

I still remained an enthusiastic parkrunner, turning up almost every week, so that by 2015 I’d only missed six parkruns in four years. Among other things I was focused on reaching my 250-club t-shirt and had calculated I’d reach it the following February. Then I changed my mind. Or rather I got my head out of the ego-driven, limitations of my mind that were pushing me on towards the t-shirt as well as the routine that Saturday morning parkrun had become.

What I realised is I’d stopped enjoying parkrun. It was a combination of small things. The journey there and back through heavy traffic. Getting out of bed early for a 6am breakfast. Going to Kings Park in Bournemouth, where an icy wind whips across the fields, and the crowds gather in the shadow of the grandstand while the sun rises behind it. Standing around until the 9am start time to be allowed to go run and then having to weave my way through masses of people who’d gone off too fast. I was no longer running all-out every week but using it as a training session. My love of parkrun had died because it no longer fitted with my needs or what I liked. I wasn’t getting out of it what I had four years earlier.

So I stopped and only attended occasionally.

I began to enjoy my Saturday mornings again. Doing things on my own time and schedule. Getting out of bed when I wanted. Having breakfast when I wanted. Going for the type of run and distance I wanted. Often it was an hour’s easy run closer to midday.

After six months I felt replenished and with a couple of 10K races coming up, I went back knowing some fast parkruns would help my training. Since then this has been the pattern. I go to parkrun when it’s helping me with my training or because I want to see friends or be involved in some way. Streaks should support your training and goals, not be the point of them.

People often notice when a streak is causing them physical issues. They try to run through tightness or tiredness to keep the streak going until their body sends them undeniable signals forcing them to stop.

But streaks can also be detrimental to our mental health. Usually the mental side flags up much earlier as a loss of motivation, bad mood or grumpiness long before any physical problems. We become so focused on how it looks out there to keep our streak going that we don’t take the time to look in here to see how it’s affecting us.

The Homecoming List

Arriving home from a run, I unlock the back door, step into the kitchen and find myself faced by a marauding list of things to do. Life used to be so easy when I was irresponsible – I could pay the price later but these days …

I’m stood in sweaty kit that I want to get off because, well, who wants to stand in sweaty kit?

I particularly want to get my bandana off because it gets cold and damp quickly. I want to put it on the hallway radiator but I’m in the wrong part of the house and I’m wearing my shoes.

So my shoes need to be taken off (particularly if they’re muddy) but I also want to get my heart-rate monitor off.

I need to take my heart-rate monitor strap off but … if I wait a few seconds more … it’ll pop up a Heart rate recovery stat indicating how much heart-rate has dropped since I stopped running two minutes ago.

But once I’m thinking about my heart-rate and watch, I want to look at the splits from my run. I barely glance at the watch while I’m running, so arriving home is the first opportunity to get a good look at the numbers and … feel pleased or start rationalising.

I want a cup of tea. This one’s easily solved by flicking on the kettle. Unless of course, I forgot to fill it before going out and then I’m going to have to step across the kitchen in wet shoes.

Now drips of sweat are beginning to form. Previously they’ve been evaporating as I run, now I’m stationary they’re building up on me. I need to get to the towel I’ve left in the dining room but to get there I need to have taken off my shoes. Sometimes I’m still aching from the run and don’t feel ready or able to bend down and unlace my shoes. I got out of the habit of kicking my shoes off when I was about twelve. This is the downside of becoming responsible, growing up and doing things properly.

And then there’s nutrition. I should be eating something in the first few minutes after I arrive home, shouldn’t I?  The first hour is the best time to reload the carbs and nutrients into the muscles. Miss that window and it impacts future workouts.

How did life get so complex? This is nothing like it used to be. Finish playing football, shake hands with the opposition then straight to the changing rooms to shower in the sports centre. Stick the sweaty kit in the backpack – maybe leave it there overnight by accident. Shower, change, walk back to the office and start sweating again. Pop to the shop and buy a bottle of Lucozade and a couple of packs of crisps to go with my sandwiches. Get back on with work.

My downstairs tasks are done. I need to get upstairs, get the sweaty kit off.

Take the heart-rate strap and put it in the bathroom sink for a quick soak. Maybe put the bandana in there too. While the sink is filling with water, I’ve just time to open up my laptop to leave my watch uploading to Garmin. Maybe also time to get the soggiest kit off.

But I also need to make sure I remember about the heart-rate strap. One afternoon, I came upstairs after sitting in the sun for hours and heard a curious noise. I couldn’t place it, it was unfamiliar. Walking into the bathroom, I discovered to my horror the tap on and the sink was full. Fortunately I’d left it filling slowly enough that the water was trickling out of the basin overflow. Phew!

The Critical Path Analysis skills from my project management days have me flitting from one task to the next. Many is the occasion when I’ve done an upstairs task and gone down to the kitchen to find a teabag stewing in the cup. In the 1-2 minute window between filling the cup and waiting for the teabag to brew, I’d thought there was enough time to ‘pop upstairs’ and do something else. But then a variation of Doorway Effect kicked in and, once elsewhere, I’d forgotten the teabag was steeping.

It’s still too soon to shower or wash if I’m sweating. Got to wait for the body to cool down and get back to a calm level. So much for the warmdown jog at the end of my run.

So while I wait, maybe I’ve got time to write some notes on my Garmin upload. Copy them to Strava – think of what to say about the session, make separate notes in my spreadsheet and training log. And that’s before I get out around to any kind of analysis or comparison to previous sessions.

Once I’ve logged into Garmin and Strava I’ll want to see how everybody else’s runs have gone, so there’s another time sink. Maybe I should nip downstairs first and get that cup of tea, grab a banana or bagel to put some immediate nutrition in. I might even risk putting on lunch but must remember to set the timer so there’s no chance of it boiling over while I’m upstairs.

If shoes are wet they need to be stuffed with newspaper and put by the radiator. That’s a job I can do while I wait for the second teabag in my fresh cup of tea to brew. All of this with no stretching or foam rolling in sight! That’s one thing never making my list.

Finally most of the jobs are done. I’ve got my cuppa, I’ve munched on a snack and it’s time to wash or shower and get some clean clothes on.

A few days ago I found a way to make it all seem easier. I stood outside my house when I arrived home. I didn’t go straight into the house but instead took a minute or two to look around and enjoy the quiet. I was able to take my headband off. Wait for the watch to ping up its recovery stat thing, take a look at the splits from my run and generally recompose myself before getting indoors. The extra minutes made all the difference and had eliminated some of the tasks I’d taken to fretting over.

It was like the days when I played football, volleyball or any other sport. We used to shake hands, walk off the pitch in a wearisome way and amble back to the changing rooms. Sometimes we would even stretch before we left the arena. But it was always much less hurried. Deliberately so.

Just don’t ask me about the days when I come home desperate for the toilet!

“Let’s see what happens”

I was standing on an empty street. A grey January day but not cold. I’d run here from home. The plan said a 15-min warmup and that’s what I’d done. Just shy of two miles beginning with a jog until my breathing settled in, gradually picking up the pace with some downhill running that had got as quick as I was going to need for my first effort.

So now I wandered up and down the street. A minute to the lamp-post eighty metres away then a minute back. Two minutes wouldn’t be long enough to clear any lactate built up during warm-up. I decided to do another trip to the lamp-post and back.

As I reached the lamp-post, I now cued myself into what I was about to do. Six hundred metres at 6:18/mile pace, anywhere from 6:15 to 6:20 would be good enough. Jog the recovery then a five hundred metre effort at the same 6:18 pace with another jog to recover. Then it would get interesting. Four hundred metres followed by three efforts of three hundred metres all at a faster pace – 5:50/mile. Could I do these? I’d struggled to hit pace last Thursday on similar efforts over only two hundred metres. I’d run strides on Tuesday less than 48 hours earlier, did I overdo it? Would my legs be fresh enough to hit target? I needed to go out on the six hundred at the correct pace or risk jeopardising the later intervals.  My mind whirred. Not overly anxious but enough thoughts to start getting on my nerves.

I called a halt to it. “Let’s see how it goes” I said to myself and instantly all the thoughts were gone. I was back in the present, walking the street on a grey January day. If I failed to hit target then so be it. I’d have some decisions to make about whether to adjust the plan or just put it down to fatigue from previous sessions. If I hit target it would be great as I’m on schedule. “But let’s just see how it goes” I told myself. The unsaid follow-on being “then figure out what to do once I’ve got concrete information to work with. Let’s work with reality not a bunch of needless fears and anxieties swirling around”.

I went through a phase a few years where I got very Zen about life. I was able to simply say “It’s all just information. Whatever happens today is information about what to do next”. No longer did I interpret events or add my own narrative to them; I simply saw them for what they were and it was impossible to rile me up. The simple truth is no-one can make good decisions when they’re riled up. They might luck into a good decision while making a panic choice but more often than not, fear and anxiety lead to the wrong decisions. People play it safe to avoid their worst fears coming true.

“It’s all just information. Whatever happens today is information about what to do next.”

In my update on 800m training, I wrote about how I sometimes felt nervous, or low-level anxiety going into a session. This doesn’t relate to the pain of what’s about to occur, only whether I’m going to hit the targets I’ve set. For someone else maybe it would be a fear of the pain or breathlessness.

How do I get round this? It’s simple and effective. I stop worrying about those targets or goals, and say “Let’s see how it goes”. Doing that immediately brings me back into the present. All fear and anxiety comes from the past or the future, the present is the only moment where you can take action and make a difference.

Does this mean I don’t plan for the future? Not at all. But what I don’t do is emotionally engage with it. The moment you start worrying about what’s going to happen is when you have to recognise you’ve become distracted and refocus back to now. Once calm you can go back to planning. The better you get at this refocusing, the more it becomes second-nature.

Mindfulness was a big watchword a couple of years ago and what is it? It’s about becoming present in the moment. It’s a variation on meditation which is also about focusing on what is happening now. Next time you go to a race and start feeling nervous about whether you can win (or whether you’ll be last), bring yourself back to the present moment. In a calmer moment begin to explore why it would an issue not to win, or to be last. What would that mean to you? What consequences do you imagine may occur because of it? Uncover the underlying fear and then dissolve it by sitting with it. Commit to facing up to it.

There’s one period of my life where I remember experiencing extreme levels of anxious thinking. It was when I was twenty and my fear of not being able to handle an upcoming situation would begin a domino stream of consciousness with one thought leading to the next. The trigger could be any sort of thing. Maybe my manager had arranged a meeting with me the next day but not said what it was about. Maybe I’d be invited to a party, accepting because I didn’t know how to decline, now worried my social skills would be lacking. Maybe it was about taking something back to a shop.

Night time was often when those thoughts came because I kept myself too busy the rest of the day to address them. But in the dark, quiet of my room, the express train of thoughts would depart, setting off down the tracks at high speed. With the party or returning something to a shop I could stop it by making a negative decision – simply decide not to turn up or keep the defective item. Anxiety derailed by avoiding the situation; that was my go-to strategy, ultimately to my detriment.

But there was no way I could avoid a meeting with my manager so I’d start going through all the possible things I’d done at work recently. I’d explore and examine each situation, I’d come up with excuses or reasons about why I’d done what I’d done. I’d imagine the response I’d get and how I could counter it. Fatigued, eventually my mind tired of the “This happens … what do I do next?” game of Twenty Questions and I’d fall asleep. I had no idea how to stop this whirlwind of thinking other than by avoidance wherever possible. But the one thing I came to realise about facing up to the unavoidable was that, despite all the scenarios I thought up, none of them ever came to pass. Never. Not once. When the actual time came to confront whatever I was scared of, it always played out in a way I’d never imagined.

I’ve read countless testimonials from runners who wouldn’t go to parkrun (“I’ll be at the back”), or join a running club (“club runners are snobby”), or even just go for a run (“people will be looking at me”). Yet when they did these things, they found it was a completely different story. Parkrun was friendly and welcoming, the running club wasn’t elitist and running round their neighbourhood didn’t raise eyebrows. All the imagined consequences never came to pass. It’s exactly what I used to experience and they follow the same self-defeating pattern I did. They get involved in their ego’s perception of how it will play out and when that becomes too much, they go with an avoidance strategy (not going to parkrun, not joining the running club, not going for a run) to stop the anxious thinking. But in the process their life becomes one size smaller as they close down an option that could open up so many possibilities.

Like I said back at the beginning I now realise there’s a better way. It’s to stop trying to predict the future and to live in this moment. When the future finally arrives, I deal with it based on whatever shows up. It makes everything so much easier. When the anxious thinking kicks in, nip it in the bud as early as possible by committing to let the future unfold and see what happens.

“Let the future unfold and let’s see what happens”